Another Four-Year Wait for the Airport’s Terminal 3 

The Taoyuan Airport is already crowded well beyond the designed capacity.

If the crowded conditions at Taipei Taoyuan Airport annoy you, get used to it. The situation will likely only get worse between now and late 2023 when the airport’s third terminal is supposed to be ready for service.

Repeated delays have plagued the project. Twice – in May last year and again two months later – the Ministry of Transportation and Communications (MOTC) put the contract out to tender, only to find that not a single company had submitted a bid.

Now the government will be testing the old expression, “The third time’s a charm.” The next tender is scheduled to take place on June 10, with the goal of breaking ground in September.

In the aborted first two tenders, potential contractors were reportedly discouraged by what they considered to be unrealistic deadlines for completing such a large project.

During budget hearings at the Legislative Yuan’s Transportation Committee last December, ruling Democratic Progressive Party legislator Lin Chun-hsien blamed the failed tenders on the short period being made available for construction and the consequent difficulty for contractors to make a decent profit. He criticized the preparation of the tenders by the government-owned Taoyuan International Airport Corp.

Besides providing a longer timeline in the upcoming third round, the airport has made a number of changes in the bidding procedures. A key difference is that the project will be divided into separate tenders for civil engineering and the supply of electro-mechanical equipment. American companies are expected to bid for the equipment portion but not for the construction contract.

Other changes this time include adjustments to the terminal’s design and to contractual obligations under the tender rules. In addition, the budget has been increased by NT$3.6 billion (US$117 million) to a total of NT$78.2 billion (US$2.5 billion).

The urgent need for the third terminal is becoming increasingly evident. The number of passengers passing through the airport has been expanding by about 5% annually in recent years.

Last year the figure reached 46.8 million person/trips (including transit passengers). That volume was double the level of 10 years ago and far exceeded the airport’s designed capacity of 37 million passengers a year (15 million for Terminal 1 and 22 million for Terminal 2).

According to MOTC projections, the passenger traffic will reach 60 million person/trips by 2024 and 70 million by 2028.

Last year, despite a 1.5 million drop in the number of travelers from China, the volume of inbound passengers at the airport set a new record, breaking the 11 million mark.

MOTC, which is responsible for supervising the tourism sector, has raised the target for 2019 to 12 million. On the outbound side, the number of travelers came to a record 15.7 million in 2017 and grew by 6.3% year-on-year to 16.6 million in 2018.

Given those increases, “postponement of inauguration of the third terminal will inevitably affect the service quality of the Taoyuan Airport,” says Huang Tai-lin, a professor in Chang Jung Christian University’s Department of Aviation and Maritime Transportation.

The situation is especially serious during the Chinese New Year period, when many Taiwanese like to travel abroad. Extra flights are needed to bring back Taiwanese working or residing in China for the holiday.

Between January 26 and February 17 this year, an average of 800 flights took off or landed at the airport every day, compared with 700 in 2018. The result was frequent delays in flight schedules by up to four hours, with the on-time rate dropping to less than 20%. In addition, many airplanes had to park far from the terminals, requiring passengers to take connecting buses.

The insufficient capacity also put a damper on the airport’s transit service, which accounted for nearly 11% of the total passenger traffic in 2017, the most recent figure available. That share is considered far below the potential, given Taiwan’s advantageous geographic position. In comparison, the rate for Hong Kong is 29.5%, while Singapore’s is 26.7% and Bangkok 24.8%.

Fallen behind

When it opened in 1979 as one of Taiwan’s “Ten Big Infrastructure Projects” of the 1970s, the Taoyuan Airport was regarded as one of the largest and most advanced airports in the Asia-Pacific. But in recent years it has fallen far behind as leading airports in the region have vigorously expanded their capacities. For example, the annual capacity for Beijing Capital Airport is now over 90 million passengers. Shanghai Pudong Airport can accommodate 70 million and Guangzhou Baiyun Airport 60 million.

In recent years, the Taoyuan International Airport Corp. has sought to meet the growing demand by expanding the capacity of the second terminal in two phases. At the end of 2018, five million passenger/trips had been added to the capacity. As a result, the airport has managed to maintain its service quality at a C rating, the middle level on the five-grade scale of the International Airport Transport Association (IATA).

When completed, Terminal 3 will have 193,000 pings (6.9 million square feet) of floor space, enabling it to accommodate 45 million passenger/trips a year, more than the 37 million of the current combined capacities of the first and second terminals.

The terminal will be an avant-garde building with a sleek appearance, like a big bird extending wings ready to fly into the sky. The designers were Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners of the UK, working with Taiwan’s CECI Engineering Consultants.

A highlight will be the NT$1.7 billion (US$55 million) cloud-like ceiling, consisting of 130,000 steel tubes to help absorb sound and reflect natural light to reduce electricity costs. The design was approved after the addition of an overhead rail system to facilitate installation and maintenance of the steel tubes to prevent them from gathering dirt and dust.

An architectural rendering of the avant-garde third terminal featuring a cloud-like ceiling. Photo: Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners

Along with the third terminal, the airport is building a third runway to enable it to accommodate more flights. The already congested conditions for aircraft takeoff and landing, as well as slots for parking on the tarmac, will be aggravated by the forthcoming entry of StarLux Airlines, which is scheduled to start operations next January. The airline was founded by Chang Kuo-wei, who lost his position as chairman of EVA Air following the death of his father, Evergreen Group founder Chang Yung-fa in 2016.

The third runway was originally scheduled for completion in 2025, but the project has yet to pass the second-stage environmental-impact assessment and also faces problems with land acquisition. The runway will be built on higher terrain than the first two runways, raising concern about noise levels for neighboring residents. The Transportation Ministry has expressed hope that the project will receive environmental-impact clearance by the end of this year.